Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Earmarks and Campaign Contributions: Less Than Meets the Eye

Last week Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) released a report on the relationship between earmarks and campaign contributions.  TCS purports to show that campaign contributions to members of Congress are associated with the earmarks that members get for their campaign contributors.[1] 

The TCS report relies heavily on a narrative that frames earmarks as an illegitimate exercise of legislative power undertaken by craven politicians obsessed with getting reelected (a narrative that is widely shared by the public).  TCS (and its doppelganger Citizens Against Government Waste) uses media outlets, starved for content, as a megaphone. 

Fundamentally transformed over the last several decades, most media outlets do not have the resources to engage in in-depth reporting and they capitalize on the ability of groups like TCS to provide seemingly in-depth political analysis without critical review.  The media also shares with TCS a cynical view of politicians.  Resource scarcity combined with a shared narrative, and the media’s need to feed the 24-hour news cycle, produces a “perfect storm” of sensational and misleading coverage.

In a story titled “Earmarks set aside for campaign donors, report finds” in The Washington Post the results of the TCS study were dutifully recounted punctuated with quotes from the leading voice of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Steve Ellis suggesting a quid pro quo between earmarks and contributions (as the title of the article suggests): "In too many cases campaign contributors are able to donate thousands of dollars and get millions of dollars back in earmarks."[2]

These stories echo—maintaining the essential narrative structure promoted by the groups—in local media outlets by focusing attention on local representatives who are held up as examples of “big spenders who trade earmarks for campaign contributions.”  For instance, citing this study The Seattle Weekly reported on Norm Dicks’ earmarks and campaign contributions highlighting the supposed quid pro quo angle noting that his “giving [earmarks] results in a lot of receiving [campaign contributions].”[3]  Stories like these further amplify TCS’ message.

Taking this report at face value a reader is led to believe that the vast majority of campaign contributions come from the recipients of earmarks: That is simply not true.

The TCS report does not mention that about 200 members of Congress (almost half) either did not request or receive earmarks, or did not receive contributions from individuals and organizations associated with their earmarks, according to the data.  Failing to mention that fact supports the central narrative of the report—that all members are linking earmarks to campaign contributions—but it is misleading.

The report fails to provide adequate context for the fundraising data.  Jim Moran (D-VA) received over $71,000 in campaign contributions (placing him #1 in that category) and is ranked #4 in total earmarks.  Seventy-one thousand dollars is a lot of money; there is no doubt about it.  But according to the Federal Election Commission in this electoral cycle Moran raised over $700,000 dollars for his campaign.  Seventy-one thousand dollars is a lot of money, but it is a relatively small proportion of his overall war chest. 

Using the TCS data for Fiscal Year 2010 we added Federal Election Commission data on total campaign contributions for the 2010 election cycle. Of the 233 members of Congress included in the database, less than one percent (precisely 0.8%) of their campaign contributions was raised from individuals or PACs associated with their earmarks.  Put another way, 99.2% of campaign contributions are not tied to earmarks in this study. If we include the 202 members who did not receive any contributions associated with their earmarks the percentage of campaign contributions associated with earmarks is less than one-half of one percent.  If 99.2% of campaign contributions come from somewhere else it does not make a lot of sense to hand-wring over where 0.8% comes from.  Our campaign finance system is clearly broken; blaming it on earmarks leaves TCS barking up the wrong tree.

Moran’s case is an outlier; it is the exception not the rule.  The average member of Congress in the TCS data (among those who raised any money at all) collected a little more than $5,000 in campaign contributions from interests receiving earmarks.  This is compared to the average war chest of these same members, which was $875,000.  The most common amounts raised by the members according to TCS data? Eighteen members raised $500 and 17 raised $1,000.  It seems unlikely that members of Congress would trade hundreds and millions of dollars in earmarks for such paltry sums.

The use of appropriations earmarks is one political issue where the media consistently fails to exercise balance in their coverage.  While media outlets routinely take pains to seek out conflicting views on even the most widely accepted truths (e.g., global climate change, evolution), it is rare to hear dissenting voices on the issue of appropriations earmarks. 

To the degree that the media trumpets, unchallenged, the results of reports like this one from Taxpayers for Common Sense they do the public a great disservice.

[1] “Exploring the Relationship Between Earmarks and Campaign Contributions” accessed June 7, 2010:
[2] J.W. Farnham “Earmarks set aside for campaign donors, report finds” accessed June 7, 2010:
[3] Rick Anderson “Norm Dicks' Earmarks Pay Campaign Dividends” The Seattle Weekly, accessed June 7, 2010:

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